In school, Michael Furchert was told to count soldier, guns and tanks instead of apples, oranges and toys. In phys-ed, students tossed fake grenades instead of balls. The Berlin Wall prevented the East German from visiting his maternal grandparents, who lived in West Berlin, until he was 16. Furchert dreamed that life in a free country “must be paradise.”
“For me, to look back, it was unbelievable to think how life was,” says Furchert, who has begun a six-month stay in Duluth. He is speaking and performing piano concerts for Northland audiences, mostly at churches. A two-month visit last spring was so successful – he recounted stories of his youth as a guest at East High School and a couple churches – that Diane Oesterreich of Duluth helped the Berliner secure a visa and working permit for a return trip.
“It was just an amazing response,” Oesterreich said of Furchert’s talks, noting that his perspective on freedom resonates with people of all ages. “For me, it was nothing unique, nothing special because, to me, it was my life,” said Furchert, 26.
While growing up behind the Iron Curtain was hard, Furchert says he was further isolated because of his Christian faith and his refusal to join the Communist Party. He was continually ridiculed by classmates, and treated as an outcast for not joining communist youth groups. Furchert said he could not compromise his faith in God by devoting himself to communism, which taught that there was no God. The East Germans demanded allegiance to the government, and the indoctrination began in school.
“The young generation was the main political aim of the government,” said Furchert, who grew up in Neulewin, an 800-resident village about 40 minles eat of Berlin. “They did everything to manipulate our minds, to win, to win us for their political purposes and to make us organized fighters for the system of socialism and communism.”
TAKING A STAND
At age 7, Furchert and his classmates were instructed to pledge allegiance to the Organization of Young Pioneers, a communist organization. His father, a pastor at a Protestant church, and his mother told Furchert and his two sisters it was their choice. All three refused to join and were denied school uniforms, which marked them as outcasts. “I was blocked from many school events for my stand,” he said. “They wanted to get everyone in school dedicated to communism.”
At age 14, student underwent consecration – a rite of passage into adulthood and a reaffirmation of their dedication to communism. Again, Furchert refused. “I was put down as one who remained a child,” he said. “:They reallywanted me to suffer the consequences, so they put me on (forced-labor detail at) a construction site at the same time my class was taking one week off, having vacation with the teachers.”
At age 16, Furchert’s long-awaited day came: His decade long ordeal in school was coming to an end. “I was so wrong in thinking that maybe on this last day of school, on this (graduation) ball, I could finally become friends with the people of my class,Quot; Furchert recalled. Instead, he said, all the students dressed as angels with devil’s tails. “That was a real obvious mockery of God and my beliefs.” That represented a low point in Furchert’s life, but a high point came later in 1989 when he took part in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. “when you heard the news you grabbed your bottle of champagne and your hammer and you went to the wall.”
His compulsory education finished, Furchert enrolled in pottery school. The apprenticeship lasted three years, ending with Furchert’s refusal to move into military service. That decision cost him a chance to go into higher education because the government required three years of military service before students could attend a university. Furchert instead attended a 15-month Christian youth camp in Germany, which allowed him to make contacts with other such camps in Great Britain and the United States.
The reunification of Germany created travel opportunities that hadn’t existed before. “I needed to catch up,” said Furchert, who traveled abroad to Christian youth camps and, just last year, became a licensed travel agent.
A CHANCE DULUTH CONNECTION
Furchert and Oesterreich hooked up completely by chance more than a year ago. Furchert had written some poetry and he wanted feedback from someone who was involved with both music and Christian ministry. He keyed “Christian” and “management” into an American Online profile search and Oesterreich’s name popped up. He sent a message. “The way he wrote, I could see he had experienced things that could really help people,” said Oesterreich, who attends Resurrection Fellowship in Duluth’s Woodland neighborhood.
Oesterreich has worked in Christian management for a couple years, mostly setting up engagements for musical groups. After several conversations via computer and phone, Oesterreich invited Furchert to Duluth, where he discovered a passion for music. Since his visit last spring, Furchert has composed about 20 piano pieces, many of which he performs during his public appearances.
“I never really spoke about (my life) and never saw a reason to speak about it, and this was where I also discovered the music and an ability to compose this music. It was something I had given up,” he said.
For the first time in ten years he played the piano, which was triggered by a walk along the Lake Superior shore. “Mike was enjoyed watching the gulls and he came back and got down behind the keyboard and wrote the most beautiful song with the longest title, “Oesterreich said. Furchert remembers the title – “Seagulls playing on the high waves of Lake Superior on a stormy day” -but he hasn’t written a note on paper.Music is “my way of allowing personal and private things out,” he said. “It comes out of my memory. I see a picture in my mind and I just try to describe the picture with my music.”
Oesterreich, who has teamed with Furchert in forming Challenger Music and Evangelism Ministry, said Furchert’s piano playing is “God inspired.” Furchert’s six-month work permit allows him to share his music and stories for secular and nononsecular audiences. Oesterreich serves as Furchert’s employer, and groups that hire Furchert pay a variable fee. Furchert delves into Christian themes when visiting church groups. “I’m not a preacher. I like to challenge people to think about their own lives and the consequences (of their choices), “he said.
For much of his life, choice was forbidden.
“The challenge for me in East Germany was the dictatorship,”he said. “The challenge here for many people is their freedom… Many people I know in the USA don’t really know how to use freedom for the best, and there can be a danger with freedom if you don’t use it responsibly. You can be trapped and caught in your freedom.”
Furchert calls his piano playing, reborn in Duluth, his passion. “I see it as a way to get people to reflect on their lives and get touched. And if people consider this music to be good, then I’d be glad. ” Reflecting on his own life, Furchert believes he’s being rewarded for standing firm in his faith. And he’s taking none of it for granted.
“Sometimes I have the impression that I was granted a second life. The memories I still have seem to come from some other life that I must have lived somewhere else, some other time.”